It's Friday, 11.15am, and the Casa Rosada is deserted. The focus is on the Olivos presidential residence, where President Alberto Fernández is due to announce the next phase of Argentina's quarantine period. Vilmar Ibarra sends a WhatsApp message to the president of a screenshot from Crónica, reading: "Alberto habla a la hora Alberto," knowing that the message will be delayed.
In an exclusive interview with Perfil, Ibarra – one of Alberto Fernández's most trusted officials – discusses everything: the pandemic, internal fights in the coalition, the centralisation of power around the president, the Vicentin agro-giant, the delay to the abortion bill and gender parity. It's this latter issue that motivates and excites her in particular, so much so that she ends our interview in tears.
As the government's legal and technical secretary, Ibarra is a crucial cog in the government's attempts to get legislation passed. While she nominally takes care of Alberto Fernández's signature, her task is really to do "with writing, reviewing, correcting and guaranteeing that the norms that are dictated are in accordance with the laws and the Constitution," she explains.
The different resolutions and decrees issued during the pandemic have generated criticism from a sector of society that has spoken of restriction on freedoms. Even Mauricio Macri himself asked for them not to advance.
The good thing about living in a democracy is that we have a judicial branch that reviews the constitutionality of a government's decisions regarding laws and the Constitution. We all have the freedoms, guarantees and rights established in the Constitution, but there are circumstances that determine the need to modify this temporarily and reasonably.
Taking care of the public health and the life of all Argentines is in all international treaties as one of the necessary reasons [to amend legislation]. We were very careful – at the beginning there were voices asking for a state of siege, [but] the president said that he wanted the Judiciary to be able to control the constitutionality of his acts.
The coronavirus postponed a presidential agenda that included sending the legal abortion bill. When can it arrive to Congress?
The legalisation of abortion bill is ready and the discussion on abortion must be carried out from the perspective of public health – there are hundreds of women who die from clandestine abortions. Today we are in the worst of worlds: abortions happen in the thousands, so we must remove that clandestine element. We also want there to be as few abortions as possible, which is why we believe in [the] Comprehensive Sex Education (ESI) [plan].
But this debate needs the Health Ministry and today that is unthinkable. It is very difficult to say that we are going to take away their team from attention to the pandemic in order to discuss the abortion law. It is important and necessary but we want to be cautious and we feel that we need to be in a better position [with the pandemic] to tackle this debate.
Even in putting a public health debate out there, it is also a law that generates a grieta.
It is true, but I think you have to explain and persuade. I don't think that grietas should be constructed and deepened, I think that all those differences are settled by the debate. There was also a grieta with the Marriage Equality Law and it ended up how things work out in a democracy, with debate and votes in Congress.
Today one looks around and sees that even those who at that time wanted to go backwards now say that it was a very good law. And it was a law that did not hurt anyone and made us better as a society.
Why should one believe that the judicial reform aimed at Comodoro Py is not a measure so that, once again, those in power advance with a Judiciary that's more convenient to their government?
It is important to move away from a pendular justice system that investigates the opposition of the moment. It is necessary to finish with the 'judicialisation' of politics and that judges make decisions based on laws and not based on political pressure or even political agreements. There is a small group of judges with enormous power over politics – the idea is to move towards a process of the 'democratisation' of justice so that each judge has less firepower, but so that they have the capacity to investigate with full independence.
Will the bill be accompanied by a decree creating a council of jurists, to review the composition of the Supreme Court, the Magistrates' Council and the Ministry?
One of the central organisms is the Magistrates' Council. It must stop trying to see how it puts in place judges that are 'mine' and remove those of 'others,' to have transparent contests and judges who judge how they should judge. These important bodies of our Constitution have to be debated.
We do not share the perception that as a country our justice system is working well, we have to start discussing it with plural committees where recommendations can be expressed and received and everything that is resolved will go to Congress. It is also important that the justice system is divorced from the intelligence services – this obscenity has to end.
Do you also believe that there is a responsible opposition and another, a tweeter, that hinders management?
The president has been clear that he must exercise an inclusive, rational, debate and consensus-building leadership. After four years of Mauricio Macri [in office] that led to Argentina virtually entering default, with inflation doubling, more poverty and more unemployment, an alternative had to be given to Argentina. And an alternative was built by people who had once been together, but who had taken different political paths. This construction was proposed within the framework of inclusive, broad and plural leadership. The proposal that the candidate for president would be Alberto Fernández had to do with that, the idea that Argentina needs that kind of leadership. Alberto himself says that he does not believe in a power accustomed to building on his own figure, he is a person with enormous capacity for dialogue. I don't know if I remember another president who has spoken to all media outlets, regardless of whether they are editorially closer to the government or less.
He also discusses articles, denying them on Twitter or via phone.
Yes, he debates. Alberto is a person of discussion, of strong debate, he is a vehement type in the discussion. Alberto talks to everyone, afterwards you will agree with what he says, but he believes in rational leadership and in the persuasion and discussion of ideas. Debate and discussion is not what worries him – it's what he likes.
Isn't this a government that is too centralised around the president?
We are in a very difficult time where life, health and a very difficult economic situation are at stake. One has to take charge – people are distressed in the face of a situation that was already very serious, that has to be taken care of and it seems good to me that in this situation it is the president who is central.
In the middle of everything, infighting appears...
In coalitions, there are different visions, this happens and there is no need to be alarmed by it. Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] and Alberto made the decision to move forward with an alternative for government that contained and expanded the space of construction, so surely there will be different views. Alberto's leadership must be inclusive. We come from different backgrounds, from different experiences and in some things, of course, there are different views. Alberto contains all that. The president and Cristina dialogue and are two very important pieces of this coalition. Both know that this coalition works with the two of them and within the framework of a space that has different biographies and experiences. In this coalition are Alberto, Cristina, [Sergio] Massa, [Felipe] Solá and Vilma Ibarra was called. We all come from varied histories and this gives added value.
You were totally away from politics, came back and found a pandemic...
This was not in the fine print, I had not thought about going back to politics, it cost me a lot when I left at the end of the term in Congress, in 2011 – obviously I had a critical position towards the government at that time. I decided to make way in my profession, which was difficult and I went a few months without a job.
I was very adapted to my work in the private sphere and in a good moment personally, that's why I had no plans to return to the [political] activity. Alberto's call created questions and I thought about it a lot because if one accepts a position in the government, you have to take care of that. Everything we do is little and it was difficult for me to make this decision, but when he told me the position that was to be Legal and Technical secretary, I accepted because I am in love with the law!
You have a very low profile, but your voice rises up every time gender parity has to be fought for – even in meetings held by the president.
I try to make it visible when meetings of 10 men are assembled and there is no woman present. We are also part of it – we are part of the problems, of the solutions, of ideas, of criticism. The photo is not the photo, it is what signifies that we are not there. I don't get angry, but you have to make it visible and I thank the president because he gives me the space to say so, he is very generous like that.
This is not for me, I have already made a lifelong project and I am here after having travelled a lot. What I feel is that if a person who is in a position like the one I am in contributes their grain of sand, so that the younger ones do not have to go through what we went through, it is good thing. One knows as a woman how to go through very hard times and everything I can do to make the next generations better off, I am going to do. With care and respect, but we have to fight.
Vilma Ibarra wipes tears from her face as the recorder is turned off after more than an hour. The presidential announcement, unveiling the next phase of the quarantine period, has not yet started.